AP Headline on Stiffed Ill. Lottery Winners Doesn't Note Their Lawsuit

September 9th, 2015 10:31 PM

It would be easy to conclude, based on its treatment of a story about Illinois lottery winners suing to force the state to disburse their payouts, that the Associated Press really doesn't want readers and its subscribing outlets to learn about it.

This "keep them in the dark" approach is consistent with a previous AP story on the state's failure to pay lottery winners. Let's start with that story's headline. Noted by yours truly on August 31 before the lawsuits were filed — "Lottery Winners Don't Get Largesse, But Get Left Out" — it was in my opinion deliberately vague and incoherent. The AP's headline at this evening's unbylined story, given the existence of the lawsuit, is even worse: "Amid budget debate, Illinois Lottery stops some payouts." Those who get only headlines in their newsfeeds on their phones, tablets and computers and don't click to read the story will have no idea that any legal action exists.

Tonight's story, time-stamped at 8:53 p.m., was gone from the front page of the wire service's "Big Story" site by 9:10 p.m. At least the AP's more detailed "Big Story" page for "Latest News" still has it, but that's not saying much.

Predictably, the AP writeup cast a Democrat as a potential hero of sorts, and showed no indication of any effort to get a comment from the state's Republican governor. The dispatch also took its sweet time — six paragraphs — telling readers how much the state's lottery winners have not been paid thus far. It's not a small number:

Two lottery winners filed a federal lawsuit against the Illinois Lottery on Wednesday for stopping payouts of prizes because the Legislature and governor have failed to agree on a state budget.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by Rhonda Rasche, who is awaiting a $50,000 payout, and Danny Chasteen, who won $250,000, seeks class-action status and the halt of ticket sales.

Last month, the Illinois comptroller's office said that without a budget for the July 1 fiscal year, there wasn't authority to write checks over $25,000 and payments would be delayed.

"How the heck can they do this, and they're still selling tickets?" said Rasche, a resident of the Chicago suburb of Homer Glen who won her money in July from a $3 scratch-off ticket. "If I was the one selling raffle tickets and I didn't pay, I would be sued or in jail or both."

Rasche became emotional as she told of her plans to spend some of her winnings on home improvements, new furniture and a vacation for her best friend and the friend's sister who had nursed their mother during a terminal illness.

The lawsuit names Lottery Director B.R. Lane, the Illinois Lottery Control Board and Northstar Lottery Group as defendants. It seeks to force the lottery to pay winners of more than $25,000 with 5 percent interest and asks that the lottery be barred from paying its administrative or operational costs until the winners receive their prizes. The lawsuit alleges dozens await more than $288 million in prizes.

"The lottery represents that you can win instantly," said Rasche's attorney, Thomas Zimmerman Jr. "They fail to tell you as of July 1 they're not going to pay. But yet they continue to sell the tickets under those false pretenses."

... State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said he would soon file legislation to allow the state comptroller to cut checks to prize winners despite the ongoing budget fight.

"They've got the money; they just don't have the legal authority to spend it," Franks said. "My bill will allow them legal authority to do it."

If what Mr. Franks seems to be saying in the final excerpted paragraph is true — that the lottery's payout money is sitting in an account unspent — the legislature could have solved this problem in early July without negative financial consequences for the state. The guess here is that Democrats thought they might gain some leverage in their budget negotiations with Governor Bruce Rauner by holding the funds back while trying to place the blame on him. That strategy appears to be backfiring, so now they're backpedaling. Thus, there's really nothing noble about what Franks is doing now. It should have been done months ago.

Both AP stories on the lottery situation have failed to report that the State of Illinois has been woefully behind in paying all of its bills for years, inflicting a great deal of hardship on the state's vendors and many residents who depend on state services. According to a Reuters story earlier today, the current total of unpaid bills is $5.5 billion, and is on track to rise to $8.5 billion by year's end if the budget stalemate goes on that long.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder how much lottery ticket sales have declined since the state decided that big winners can't get their payouts. It's probably way too much to hope for that someone in the press will do their job and find out.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.